Translator’s Note: “Day in Autumn” by Rainer Maria Rilke
Thanks to a remarkable teacher, the late Géza von Molnár, I have known this poem by heart for forty years, and have, saying it over to myself, often exulted in the volta between line seven and the last five lines. (The sonnet is an important shape in Rilke's thought, so much so that its proportions are iconic, not numerical.) How clear it had always seemed to me that the poem dramatized a terrible descent from one kind of time—Olympian time, ample and wounded and loud—into a shallower time, in which the speaker was no longer bravely complicit with destruction but fretful, like a dried leaf blown about the street. After the courageous dialogue with force, he is burnt down to a cinder, tattered, futureless, and alone.
The language of the first seven lines is heavy with the elegiac rural fullness it celebrates; equally undeniable is that the language of the "sestet" is brusque, stripped, desiccated as only urban absence can be. It's true that God is present in the first seven lines, not in the last five, where the syntax of entreaty disappears. It is as if the profusion of the growing season that was just ending in the first part led only to the desolate pavement of the second part's ominously later autumn.
The most recent time I wrote the poem out in English, however, something I hadn't taken in before roughened these clear antipathies. For all its stylistic recoiling from abundance, the poem's second part is also about something that reaches fruition, which is large, complex, almost joyous—the poet's consciousness of a deeper vein whose threshold is deprivation. In the lyric it is not a paradox to speak of the flowering of loss, of the ripening of diminishment into husk and hull. And looking back from this mysterious anti-plenty to the first half of the poem, its fruit so late ripening was already drying up, too, concentrating its sugars before detaching itself from the stem. For those reasons I brought the long u sounds of the wind-swept pastures (Fluren) and shade-draped sundials (Sonnenuhren) down into the final rhyme.
Honored as a teacher and critic, Mary Kinzie has published several collections of critical essays as well as poetry. She has an MA from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and a PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University. Her collections of poetry include Autumn Eros and Other Poems (1991), Ghost...